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Tuesday, May 13, 2008 


The "liquid bombs" plot trial descended even further into farce today when the prosecution finally got round to showing its terrifying re-creation of what might have happened had the accused actually got onto the planes and then constructed their mixture of hydrogen proxide and the soft-drink "Tang", which was to be detonated using HMTD hidden in hollowed out batteries.

As you would expect, considering that the bombs have been constructed by experts and not by rank amateurs who previously might not have so much have had a chemistry set, they exploded and packed a reasonably big wallop for what would have been less than 500ml of liquid explosive. It took them at least 30 attempts to achieve an explosion from the materials, and as the explosives expert giving evidence said, this was just one of a series of explosions, doubtless the most powerful, which they carried out.

The problems with this "evidence" are manifest. Firstly, as any fule can see straight away, while such an explosion might well kill those close to it, it isn't strong enough to bring the plane down on its own. We can't know whether it would damage the hull in such a way as to immediately force an emergency landing, but it has to be remembered that planes can survive even catastrophic explosive decompressions: Aloha Airlines Flight 243 is testament to that. Neither did the mastermind of the original plot which this group presumably based their idea upon successful in his attempt to bring down a plane: Ramzi Yousef killed the man who was unfortunate enough to take the seat he planted his nitroglycerin explosives under, but it failed to puncture the plane's fuselage.

This is no doubt why the judge himself raised the relevancy of showing the explosion which they might just if they were very lucky have achieved. It is after all a conspiracy to cause explosions rather than actually causing them or committing murder through them. It is though a integral part of how weak the claims were that this was a plot which would have caused "mass murder on an unimaginable scale", as John Reid said just after the men had been arrested. In a part of the prosecution's opening statement which was hardly reported, it was revealed that the men had not succeeded in creating a viable bomb. We now know that the experts themselves had to try 30 times with the self-same ingredients before they achieved an explosion; the bombers were supposedly going to produce 8 of these bombs separately, all going off with an explosion powerful enough to destroy the plane in mid-air, or at least that was the impression originally given, now rather drastically scaled back.

If it had succeeded, it would have undoubtedly been the most spectacular attack since September the 11th. "If" though is the key term: like with the "bombs" last year outside the Tiger Tiger club and then at Glasgow airport, and also Dhiren Barot's plans for a "dirty bomb", this was a plan which looks wonderful and petrifying on paper or when it's reported in the papers, but which is close to impossible to actually pull off, especially if you don't have the means, the knowledge or the funding to do it. With the equipment that they apparently had, the "liquid explosives" plotters could have pulled off another 7/7: they certainly had enough hydrogen peroxide, although again 21/7 shows us that nothing is certain when you're working with such volatile materials. That they didn't suggests they didn't know how to make such bombs, or that they felt their plan was much purer and more original, even if it was remarkably similar to another foiled plot. Their hubris and ignorance got the better of them. As stated before, we don't have too much to worry about from such hot-headed individuals who think they know better than everyone else and that their plans are fool-proof; what we have to be concerned about is when those who do know their way around explosives and are battle-hardened return from either Iraq or Afghanistan, from what the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq referred to as the "university of terrorism". It might be then that we'll have to move beyond the simple power of nightmares.

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